Monday, November 30, 2015

Great Short Films from the Austin Film Festival

There were a lot of cool shorts at the recent Austin Film Festival. I recently blogged about Life On Juniper.  Here’s a brief reflection on three others.

My favorite short in the whole festival was Red Rover by Australian, Brooke Goldfinch.  You can see the trailer here:

Why did I love this film? Not just because it was beautifully crafted, but it touched me emotionally.  It touched me because it has a core of yearning for life, a yearning which isn’t realized within the film but which resonates in the life of the teenage couple the film is centered on.  It’s a film about an apocalypse without a single frame of violence.  It’s the heart of the apocalypse: the great loss of our future.


Several families have gathered for a last supper. We gather that a large meteor is expected to strike the Earth the next day and these families have decided to have a last meal that is poisoned to spare themselves the agony of the disaster. But the daughter of one family and her boyfriend, the son of another family, don’t accept this.  They hide the food and when everyone has fallen silent, they flee in search of shelter.  But as they search a virtually empty world for this shelter, they forget their trouble and begin to image the world that might be theirs, a world of love and springtimes.  But the world shakes and all becomes a blinding white.

Kendall McCrory’s film Ruby Woo was another film I loved at the Festival.   It’s a gritty world where an eleven-year-old sister wants to enter her older sister’s sad world without realizing what she might be getting into.  In fact, the older sister is working as a prostitute, assisted by the boyfriend. The boyfriend and younger sister are waiting outside the town’s primary motel when another call comes in and the younger sister impulsively answers it. With the boyfriend’s encouragement, she goes to the caller’s room. But the older sister emerges from her client, screams at the boyfriend and rescues the younger sister.

The triangle of the sisters and the older sister’s manipulative boyfriend was artfully drawn. This film has real heart in its misery. The film was the filmmaker’s MFA thesis film at Florida State University.

More from:

At every festival I attend, I learn more about myself than anything else. The films that are primarily cute jokes, or clever genre parodies, or fascination resolutions of ridiculous situations do not hold my interest.  I can appreciate them, mostly intellectually, but the films, like these two, that show me a journey of the heart are the ones that matter to me. This, of course, is exactly what I hope to do in my own work.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Seen at the Austin Film Festival: Life on Juniper

One of the best short films I saw at the Austin Film Festival was a Canadian film titled, "Life on Juniper."

Here's one of images they use to promote the film.

As the image suggests, there is a little green man in the film. But I want to tell you why this is an amazing human film, despite the little green man.

But first a warning.  This is going to be a spoiler.  If you're about to see the film somewhere, don't read any further.

The film focuses on an older couple.  They have lived for years on a piece of property (on Juniper Lane) that might be a bit out in the country; big enough to have a large shed with years of junk stashed in it.  One night the husband wakes up and follows a sound, some ligh,t and sees that the back door is open and someone is - maybe - just shutting the door to the shed.

The next day, his wife nags him to clean out the shed and he pretends to do that in order to investigate.  Amid snatches of background TV news referencing various news that might be related to UFOs, etc., he goes into the shed.  And, he discovers the little green man.  Not exactly ET, but apparently friendly.  They have some limited interaction in which the little green man indicates that he comes from a galaxy far, far away.

The husband sees a man in a suit knocking a their door.  He sees the man looking around the property and taking pictures.  He attempts to hide the little green man from prying eyes.

At this point, I am sort of enjoying the ride but I'm about to think, jeez, another lame low-budget sci-fi flick.  Then everything changes.

The husband comes in and the wife is asking once again about cleaning out the shed so they can move.  The husband admits to being confused about the move -- there are boxes stacked here and there in the living room. The wife reminds him that they are selling the house and moving into assisted living since she can't manage it all by herself.

Suddenly the story turns inside out. It's a story about dementia.  It's a story about how dementia looks from inside the husband's experience.  The man with the camera was a real estate agent.  I was amazed.

I've done two films in which dementia was portrayed.  But I found the experience in Life On Juniper to be a brillant way to treat the problem; creative, imaginative, fun before being sad. 

I applaud filmmaker Mark Ratlazz.

Monday, October 12, 2015


Okay, Twitter is just not the forum to really consider the issues.  So I'm compelled to write this (longer than 140 characters) blog post.  I’d love to hear from anyone with interesting counter arguments.

I don't think the real issue is 4K versus Film, or digital versus film, but that is one issue.  So some thoughts on that subject first.


For us lowly indie wannabe filmmakers, digital is cheaper in several ways.

1)    film stock and developing

The most obvious thing -- if we tend to ignore the capital cost of memory cards -- is that it costs a significant amount of money to process an hour’s worth of film and nothing for digital.

2)    time costs

The time cost is equally significant, but a two-edged sword.  First, the fact that digital is easy to shoot (no storage problem, like refrigerators for film) and more obvious, easy to view immediately. These factors make it easier to start and easier to understand how things are going.
    The other “edge” of this sword, which I don’t totally subscribe to, has to do with the idea that shooting on film makes everyone more careful, more ready to do their best because you aren’t going to do a large number of takes. (Except that this rule doesn’t apply to truly big-budget, big name folks anyway, e.g. David Fincher.)  I think the time value of seeing footage as you work is a significant plus for film.  “Video assist” is common for this reason, I realize.  I think the issue of everyone doing their best is a challenge for the director, not for the medium used to record the performance. Then there is the occasional processing lab mistake which is one of the nightmares of shooting on film.

3)    capital

Clearly, it is possible to acquire or rent acceptably decent cameras & lenses far cheaper than the equivalent 35mm or 16mm packages.  The film Tangerine is the fashionable example, of course, and -- for the subject / story / environment -- iPhone was a reasonable choice.  And good for marketing.
    Presumably, cost of gear is one reason that something like half of the features shown at Sundance in recent years (I think the data was from 2013) were shot on some form of DSLR.
    I also find it ironic that many of folks who argue most passionately about the superiority of film do not own (or in some cases, have never even rented) a film camera, though they own at least one great digital camera.

4)    for the big boys: distribution

Finally, for a film that sees wide distribution, the cost of film prints is / was a very significant expense item.  It was certainly one of the incentives for major studios to go digital and even help theaters go digital.  It’s a problem I would like to have.  A good DCP probably costs less than 1 - 3 film prints these days.

4K is too much, unnecessary

One argument against 4K is that the human eye can’t really see it.  Another is that since most video is either seen on televisions or via the Internet, that 4K is vast overkill, to the point of silliness.

On the first point, I am not an authority but I believe that viewing any image that is derived from the highest quality master has the potential to add quality to the image.  My prints made from my 4x5 negatives look better in many ways compared to my prints made from my 35mm negatives.

And, as far as web video goes, I believe we will eventually figure out the public policy / corporate greed equation to permit very high bandwidth to the home, at which point 4K television (not broadcast) becomes feasible. Again, we are at the very beginning of these developments and we should not mistake today’s limitations as fundamental problems.  I can remember accessing the Internet via dial-up from home and it seemed great at the time.  But twenty years later, Internet connectivity is more than an order of magnitude better.  Technically it could be vastly better, but the real problem is not technical, but political, social, economic.

Art, Look, Nature of the Medium

Most of the folks arguing in favor of film are doing so because of their belief and perception that film is fundamentally different and more to their liking in important ways.

There is no question that a projected 35mm film print and a projected 2K theater experience are different.  However, I think a basic fact (or perhaps a sad truth) is that many folks simply don’t see the difference.  Perhaps side-by-side many would see something.  But watching a digital projection today and trying to compare it to the 35mm film projection I saw last year is beyond most of us. Digital is clearly good enough for the mainstream, even in its present form.

Film is an amazing substance. Billions of one micron bits of silver halides, distributed in a nearly transparent emulsion of gelatin form an image that is unique in the history of technology.  The word “pixel” simply has no meaning in discussions of film.

I think the future will resemble the past here. Let’s look at the history of photography.

The Daguerreotype was a miraculous image; the first practical photographic process.  Each daguerreotype is a unique, precious object.  That uniqueness was an artistic asset and a commercial liability.  The daguerreotype appeared in 1839 and was obsolete by 1860.

The tintype was a very cheap, widely popular form of photography in the 1850s.  Many Civil War images were made on this unique process; each image was made on a sheet of thin iron.  It died out in about twenty years, although it enjoyed some afterlife as a novelty.

The platinum print was an exquisite paper print medium. It became commercially available in 1880 and become so popular that even Eastman Kodak brought out a version of this printing paper. Many art photographers, e.g. Edward Weston, produced some of their finest work on this paper. But the cost of platinum rose dramatically (compared to silver) and by the 1930s, commercial platinum papers began to disappear.

So, when was the last daguerreotype or platinum print actually made?  The answer is: last week.

Each of these technologies disappeared from the mass market but eventually were exploited for their unique artistic qualities by artists painstakingly duplicating these technologies.  This is what I think will happen to film.

Quentin Tarantino can pay 100 theaters to show his film from film prints. But digital cinema has already become the mainstream in theaters in developed countries.  I believe that the idea of an “arthouse” cinema will grow to include the idea of projecting from film prints (as well as digital for business reasons).  Film will not die in any total sense, but could become the basis for a limited form of film art, fulfilling the vision Spielberg and Lucas mentioned of film theatrical experiences more like our current stage theatrical experiences; limited runs, expensive tickets, unique art forms.

Of course, the major problem with this vision is that the manufacture of film stock -- unlike a printing paper -- is difficult to duplicate without the commitment of a major industrial process controlled facility.

The future of digital, of course, cannot be judged on the basis of the technology we see today.  Digital cinema is a very new development. As the electronic and computing aspects of digital cinema advance, the possibility of emulation the look of film -- really I mean -- becomes likely.  I’m reminded of the development of a printing process (in the 1970s) called “stonetone” in which the grain of a lithographic film was forced in such a way that it could be used instead of the classical halftone dots, resulting in a printed black and white image that had no visible halftone pattern at all.  In that respect, it strongly resembled an actual gelatin-silver print.


For me, one of the clear benefits of higher resolution today is very simple: A 2K image fits perfectly into the lowest rung of the DCP ladder.  I’m not aware of any digital cinema camera that shoots 2K but not 4K at this point. And we all know that it is occasionally necessary to enlarge a frame to emphasize something that hindsight calls for; a mission that 4K enables nicely.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Feature This: a completed feature film script

I just completed a feature-length script.  This blog post is about two things.  First, what does the word “completed” mean here?  Second, why did I do this?

“Completed” is a funny word for any work of art.  We’ve all heard the adage that films are not finished, only “abandoned.” And most of us know the feeling.  Writing is no exception.

What completed means for me, for this script, has to do with fundamental story structure.  I find story structure the most challenging aspect of writing any film, but especially a feature-length one.  So the first reason I call this draft completed is that I think it has all the story structure needed.  I think that characters react to things, do things, create consequences, suffer the consequences and then try to fix their world in ways that hang together. (Notice that I did not say, “in ways that make sense.”)

I seen too many short films that simply duck these issues and few wonderful ones that manage to embrace them.  If there is something fundamentally important about who a character is, I want the film to show me that.  Not just tell me.  And then, if the story hinges on the consequences of that aspect of that character, I’ll understand it and I’ll be ready to move forward with the story.  So story structure is partly about not cheating and no loose ends.

I have arrived at what I think is that fundamental structure.  Except that I’m so far into the whole thing that I probably can’t judge this as well as it needs to be judged.  So that’s where my first round of readers come in.

This draft is clearly unfinished in many other ways.  My initial character descriptions are probably insufficient; my excuse is that scenes have moved around as I wrote.  (Oops, excuses don’t matter!)  My characters are different people but it’s possible that they all sound kind of the same right now, so that’s the subject of a major rewrite pass at some point soon.  My characters reaction to bad things that happen to them might be uneven; too small in one place, too big in another.  That’s a challenge that will need addressing most likely. Some things probably need to become more important and the reactions more significant; others will need to get toned down.

Another, less problematic piece of unfinished work concerns boxing.  The working title of this script is Boxing Lessons and my main character takes up boxing as a form of exercise.  I don’t yet know enough about boxing to populate that world with as much texture as I believe it will need, but I’m okay with the knowledge that this is a known work item.  I may end up taking up boxing myself for this research; we’ll see.  The important thing is that I’m not pretending that I can just fake it based on having watched Million Dollar Baby.

Why did I do it?  One simple reason was to see if I could.  I’ve completed fifteen or twenty short films as writer-director (-editor-producer-casting-craft service-marketing-webmaster).  I’ve always said I would only become foolish enough to attempt to create a feature film if I wrote (or came into some intimate relationship to) a script that I felt passionate about.  Step one has to be actually writing such a script. I am now moving, however slowly, down that road.

But, honestly, even if I actually write a great script, the idea that I would also produce and / or direct such a film seems even more foolish.  The idea that - if it really were great - someone else might want to do those things is fantasy enough for now.  And a much better test of the real value of my script.

Okay.  When the script is truly done, when all the readers have read and commented and all the snags have been ironed out and if what’s left still has juice and fun and a personal point of view, then it will really be completed.  Then and only then will I need Michelle Williams’ email address.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Learning From Festivals

Last November, I attended the Cucalorus Film Festival in Wilmington, NC.  The festival is now 20 years old and is famous for its love of the quirky.  The festival has grown to five separate venues, each screening films in parallel for four days.  It's a lot of films!

In 2013 I decided that I needed to get out of town and attend a major festival at least once a year; kind of a business vacation.  So I attended the DC Shorts Festival in Washington.  At Cucalorus, I tried to see every shorts program I could, since making shorts is my primary focus.

This year, at Cucalorus, I discovered something about how to learn from a festival.  This will sound obvious and basic and it is fundamental, but it changed my whole view of attending festivals.

Essentially what happened, when I reviewed all the shorts I had seen and reflected on my reactions to them, was that my own awareness of my own aesthetic came into clear relief.  There were good films that did not click with me and good films that did.  The differences between these films highlighted my own predilections in filmmaking.

Greatly simplified, it amounts to this.  Films that feel like real life, films whose moments seem like moments experienced by a living, breathing person, films that are comfortable telling a universal story with very specific elements - these are the films that were alive for me.  Films that treated their material like a fable, with 'symbolic' but caricatured moments, people and actions, did not engage me the same way.  Films that are content to portray only the obvious tropes did not engage me.

I think all filmmakers yearn for some kind of transcendance.  It's tempting to try to make things universal or symbolic in various ways.  But my personal path lies along the line of using the most specific, most true scenes and people to aspire to that goal.  I may do it badly, of course, which is probably the subject of a couple future blog posts.